Ian Emmerson OBE first organised the Lincoln Grand Prix in 1963.
There are no end of amazing statistics related to this race, but the fact that the man responsible for building the finest one-day event in Britain first took over the reins in the year of my birth is striking and puzzling at the same time. I’m no spring chicken. He’s looking good. He must have still been in short trousers back then, by my calculations.
Emmerson in a local man, born and bred: a Lincolnshire yellowbelly – not the derogatory term it may appear. The likeliest explanation for the nickname stems from the bright-coloured waistcoats worn by the local regiment in battle. Some get to wear yellow jerseys to stand out in a peloton; the local militia liked to look smart before a dust-up. Fair enough.
It turns out that this particular yellowbelly first ran the Lincoln GP as a teenager. It’s hard to imagine an 18-year-old taking on such a mammoth task now. Emmerson took over from race founder Mike Jones, stepped away for over a decade then returned in the ‘80s, making 2014 the 59th consecutive edition of the Lincoln all told. The foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 could have been problematical, but aside from spectators being banned from the lanes, the race went ahead as usual. There’s no stopping the Lincoln.
The Lincoln greats
Emmerson and his team have striven – and succeeded – to present a prestigious event that any British rider worth his salt would be proud to have on his palmarès.
The long list of previous winners throws up outstanding riders from every generation: Albert Hitchen and Doug Dailey in the ‘60s; Phil Edwards and Bill Nickson in the ‘70s; Steve Joughin, Malcolm Elliott and (four-time winner) Paul Curran from the ‘80s; prolific Northern hardmen John Tanner, Kevin Dawson and Mark Lovatt through the ‘90s and into the next century. For long-time followers of the UK racing scene of a certain age, these are the greats.
For younger (or newer) fans, Peter Kennaugh’s fine solo victory in 2013 showcased the Manxman’s capabilities, repeated with aplomb at the national championships in Abergavenny a year later. Both races reward aggressive racing – the iconic climb of the Tumble doing the damage in Wales, the lung-busting cobbled ramp of Michaelgate at Lincoln – and Kennaugh is nothing if not aggressive.
There is another name synonymous with the Lincoln GP yet to be mentioned. Or rather two: the Downing brothers, Russell and Dean. While the elder of the siblings now retires with one victory under his belt (2007), plus two runner-up positions to his brother, Russ is currently level-pegging with Paul Curran on four wins in Castle Square, and has no intention of leaving it there.
Lincoln may be a trot away from their homes in South Yorkshire, but the Downings are local heroes, near as damn it. “That’s the beauty of it for me, the amount of local support. You feel like the best rider in the world for one day,” says Dean.
Dan Ellmore, Emmerson’s right-hand man who will take over the unenviable task of organiser after 2015, chips in: “We get Hull, Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Thurcroft, Dinnington – they ride over on club-runs, watch the race, then they all want to be Russ and Dean on the way home. You drive past massive burn-ups in all directions.”
And the beauty of it, as Dean might say, is that Lincoln draws in thousands of ordinary, non-cycling spectators from the surrounding area. They may only attend one bike race per year, but they are good at putting names to faces.
“The people in Lincoln know who Malcolm Elliott is, not just the cyclists,” says Ellmore. “And it’s the same with these two, because they are on the podium nearly every year.”
Michaelgate: a savage beauty
The true beauty of the race lies in the short but savage climb of Michaelgate and the breathless bunch emerging in the historic heart of the city. Emmerson used his influence to first bring the route from the outskirts of Lincoln to the commanding heights that loom over the surrounding countryside in 1984, won by Neil Martin – father of Dan.
The high street finish seemed a logical place to end the race, but was not without its problems, as Emmerson recounts: “It was wet one year and half the bunch ended up in Halfords shop window…”
And the introduction of Sunday shopping saw the finish line move to its current location in Castle Square – no bad thing, as it transpires. Cathedral one side; castle the other; a preferable backdrop for photographers to Halfords.
“As soon as we brought it to this circuit, we started getting big crowds,” Emmerson says. “Tourists come to Lincoln anyway, so they get to see a bike race at the same time.”
Keeping up with the Downings
The tourists have also got to see one or other, or both, of the diminutive Downings climb the podium steps on a regular basis for the best part of the last 20 years.
The brothers must have a favourite of the five wins between them? “When me and Dean were away, just the two of us at the end,” says Russ of 2005, when both Downings rode for the Recycling team. The duo dropped breakaway companion Yanto Barker on the bell lap – more of him later…
The irony of Dean’s 2007 win in atrocious conditions is not lost on the man with the self-penned motto: “If there’s rain, I don’t train!” This time the battle was between Downing and Gordon McCauley of New Zealand. “I hit him at the bottom, got about a ten length gap, then I hit a manhole and he caught back up again. But I went again.”
And they did it again the following year, this time in sweltering heat, now on opposing teams. Blood is stronger than sponsorship, obviously. “That was an out-and-out battle with [third-placed] Simon Richardson,” says Dean, as Russ left them both in his wake at the foot of Michaelgate.
Walking the mere 260 metres of this climb puts the rider’s efforts into perspective. Numerous scrapes mark the kerb for the whole ascent, grounded pedals striking stone as the bunch hugs the smooth edges of the road to avoid cobbles. Dean will always go left, switching across to the other side on the sharp turn at Wordsworth Street. Russ, meanwhile, while preferring the left, will stick to the same gutter used on the first lap up Michaelgate, whichever that may be. Riders and their superstitions…
The junior edition, the West Common Road Race, precedes the main event, another important marker for Dean. “That was one of the last races my granddad came to watch me race, before he passed away in 1995. That’s why this race is always emotionally special for me. On the video when I won, with a kilometre to go, I’m on Gordon McCauley’s wheel, and I kiss the medal that my granddad won in 1936, that I always wear on a chain around my neck.”
History, tradition, superstition. The Lincoln has it all.
Dry run, wet conditions
For this 59th edition of the Grand Prix, two laps of a big loop into the Lincolnshire lanes before the first ascent of the cobbles meant a break with tradition. Lincoln hosts the national championships in 2015, requiring a longer parcours, and this was the dry run.
Or rather, the wet run. A suitably damp, squally May day, interspersed with bursts of sunshine, meant the riders reached Castle Square with the spattered appearance of Spring Classics men, only caked in Lincolnshire lanes grime, as opposed to Flandrian filth.
Reports reached us of a crash out on the big loop. Downing was down. Russell Downing. The younger of the two brothers had, along with NFTO team-mate Sam Harrison, hit a stationary NEG motorbike. A broken collarbone for Russ. No record fifth win this time round.
Dean had missed the break and was fighting to get across, to no avail. There would be no Downing presence on the podium for once.
Young Tom Moses of Rapha-Condor-JLT pushed on solo with two of the finishing laps remaining. Too soon, I thought, although losing team-mate Graham Briggs to a crash approaching the top of the climb tipped the balance away from the 22-year-old. A classic ‘amateur photographer staring transfixed down a lens takes out rider’ moment that changed the race.
One hundred and twenty-one miles; eight times up Michaelgate. Moses would blow, surely? I looked to the chasing group for a likely winner and called it: Yanto Barker, the very same man unceremoniously dumped by the Downing brothers nine years earlier as Dean went on to win. The Raleigh rider has learnt much in the intervening years, in terms of training, measuring efforts and pure race-craft.
“You can lose 30 or 40 seconds on that climb if you have done too much,” Barker warns. “And that is exactly how much Moses lost.”
The Welshman’s classic red and yellow Raleigh jersey emerged first into Castle Square, a broad band of smiley white teeth contrasting with the blackened face earned from four and a half hours in the saddle. It took a few days for the smile to fade.
“It’s a fantastic race,” Barker enthuses. “It’s always been a UK monument, probably because the atmosphere is so consistently good. It generates the kind of crowd you associate with foreign races, but it’s a home race.
“And it’s always produced a deserving winner, in my experience. Because it is not a flat finish: it is down to whoever has got the most horsepower on the final climb. There is never a winner who has sat on in an easy move. It’s always the guys who have pushed every step of the way, made all the right decisions.
“I look at the list of winners and feel incredibly proud to now be on it. I remember going there in ’99, which is the first year I rode it, and coming up against the likes of Jeremy Hunt, and since then Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift, Peter Kennaugh. They recognise that, if they are going to come back and do a UK race, this is the one.
“The other thing about the Lincoln is the history. There are not many races that have lasted so long unbroken.”
They’re pushing the boat out for 2015 and the 60th running of the Lincoln, hosting the national championships as Ian Emmerson retires with a bang.
The economic benefit survey the organisers have conducted in recent years show £0.5m coming into the city for the one-day race. “Next year will be closer to £4m – it is four days of events,” Emmerson says. No wonder the former British Cycling Federation president was awarded an OBE for services to sport and an honorary degree from the university. He is, in every sense, Mr Lincoln.
The domestic pros will have their annual chance to pit themselves against the might of Team Sky and the other WorldTour riders. It’s been a one-sided fruitless struggle in recent years (141 was the last Pro-Continental winner in 2009) but they’ll give it a good crack.
Barker will be 35 years old, but has no intention of calling a halt having finally conquered Michaelgate. He’ll be back. “I think I have to, don’t I? It’s got to be done!”
Dean Downing retires after a great run in the professional ranks: a prolific winner in criteriums over the years, but also among that fine body of men who can call themselves winners of the Lincoln Grand Prix. “I will be there next year, one way or another, either working with a team or spectating,” he says.
And brother Russ, so unfortunate to crash out and break bones in May, was yet back to winning ways come July. Level-pegging with Paul Curran on four wins apiece, hitting that record is still attainable for Russ, nationals or not. “I’ll be all guns blazing. Even in the nationals this year, I was going all right and that was only six weeks after I broke my collarbone. It suits me, that course, and I know it now. You don’t need to waste too much energy on the big circuit. It is still do or die on the climb.
“I wanted it this year, but that got ruined. Five’s a good number. I’ve got a few years left in me yet. I might retire if I get to five… probably not though!”
As for Ian Emmerson, the four days of racing and rides around Lincoln in June will be a fitting end to over 50 years of service to cycling in Britain. If it weren’t for the likes of him, there would be no Lincoln Grand Prix for Barker and the Downings to win.
From the 2014 1 annual: This Island Race